After Cormorants with a Camera


Ohara Koson, Cormorants, c. 1905 (detail)

by Arthur Conan Doyle

It was about the end of July that my old friend “Chawles” dropped in upon me in Edinburgh. We always called him “Chawles” though no one could ever tell why, as his name is Thomas. Unshackled by a profession, and a keen shot, he is endeavouring to vary the humdrum monotony of ordinary sport, either by the discovery of some fresh game or by devising new means of circumventing the old. He disclosed his latest project amid clouds of tobacco smoke:- “The Isle of May, my boy! That’s the place for this year! None of your tame rabbits and semi-civilised pheasants over there; but fine, old, pre-Adamite cormorants ‘with a most ancient and fish-like smell.’ That’s where a fellow can knock the cobwebs out of him, Bob! By the way, old man,” he continued, glancing at my camera and batch of printing-frames cooking in the sunshine, “why not come along? It’s the very place for you. Think of the old black cliffs, the caves, the basalt, and all that sort of thing. Bring your filthy paraphernalia along with you. Start on Wednesday and we shall be back by Saturday night. Why not? Say ‘yes’ and it’s a fixture.”

Why not, indeed? The University session was over, my friends out of town, Princes-street a howling wilderness, and I in need of a change. The Isle of May seemed to offer “fresh fields and pastures new” both for myself and to my camera.

“Well, ‘Chawles,’ ” I said, “if you won’t drink my cyanide or ‘fiddle’ with my plate-carriers, and will promise to conduct yourself generally like a respectable christian, I’m your man.”

“Done with you!” said “Chawles,” reaching over his hand to ratify the bargain. “That is a fixture then.”

“Couldn’t we get another fellow?” said I. “We’d have room to quarrel then.” Who could we get! This was a question easier to ask than to answer. There was Singleton, but he didn’t drink; there was Jack Hawkins, but he drank too much; then there was Holmes, but he neither smoked nor drank; while Godfrey’s continual wails about his pipe were fatal to peace and quietness. Who should it be? “Happy thought!” said I. “Who d’ye think I met in town today? The Doctor! He is our man!”

This was carried nem con., for no objection could be raised against the Doctor. His one fault of hatching vile puns and incubating over-abstruse riddles was rather agreeable than otherwise as offering a safety-valve for objurgations. In wet weather he was simply invaluable, being the proud possessor of a sepulchral bass and an unlimited stock of music-hall ditties. These considerations were duly weighed and “Chawles” despatched as an ambassador to the Doctor’s hotel, while I took advantage of the last hours of sunlight to finish off my printing.

By the Tuesday evening everything had been arranged. “Chawles” came up to superintend the packing, which he did with his feet gracefully balanced upon the mantlepiece and a tumbler of toddy between them. The Doctor was there in great force, squatting like a toad in my arm chair, his beady eyes twinkling through a cloud of smoke, whence, like the Oracle of Delphi, he emitted an occasional word of wisdom.

I selected for the journey a folding, bellows-body, half-plate camera, by Meagher, with half-a-dozen double backs. These I had made according to the American plan, with the slides drawing entirely out. For all sizes up to and including whole plate I much prefer this arrangement to the usual one. My reasons for this are various. In the first place the slides are somewhat lighter; then, as they do not open in the centre, the chance of light being admitted is reduced to a minimum. I consider, too, that they are much easier to handle in a heavy wind; and, finally, their cost is only about two-thirds.

I had two stands — one a short ash tripod, the other an invention of my own, which I have found of great service in working the moorlands of Scotland. It simply consists of a stout walking-staff four feet long and shod with iron. This is fitted to the camera by means of an adjustable ball-and-socket joint. The advantages which I claim for this simple arrangement are not only its lightness (a consideration which will have weight with every practical worker in the open air) but also its cheapness, and the facility it affords for the focussing of a moving object. By it free movement is secured in every direction, both horizontal and vertical, while four inches of iron spike are sufficient to guarantee perfect steadiness.

I selected from among my lenses a single achromatic for ordinary use, and a rapid rectilinear with drop shutter for instantaneous work. The plates were of my own manufacture. They were made by the boiling method of our worthy chief Editor, and, being exquisitely sensitive, they enabled me to get many instantaneous exposures. As we intended that our trip should extend over several days, we took with us enough chemicals to develop a few plates after each day’s work. To these I added, on the recommendation which appeared in THE BRITISH JOURNAL OF PHOTOGRAPHY, three ferrotype dishes — an innovation which the results of this tour have more than justified. We took with us also a policeman’s lantern; hut, as I omitted the small piece of ruby glass which I had intended to insert behind the lens, it was utterly useless as a dark-room light. We were enabled, however, to get over this difficulty at the cost of consuming the contents of a bottle labelled “hock,” the taste of which forcibly reminded me of the day on which I accidentally gorged myself upon my clearing solution of citric acid and alum. We heated the end of the empty bottle and then dipped it into cold water, when the rapid contraction caused the bottom to fall out. A candle end placed under this afforded us a very satisfactory red light. I merely mention this little circumstance as a hint to your readers should they ever chance to he similarly circumstanced.

With these impedimenta carefully corded up in a strong deal box I felt myself equal to any photographic emergency. It was at this stage of the proceedings that the Doctor exhibited the first indications of his chronic infirmities. A gurgling in his throat and an apoplectic hue about his “gills” prepared us for the worst. “Why,” he demanded, “is Bob’s new stand like a cardsharper in Tripoli?” Let us draw a veil over the answer. Suffice it that the atrocity depended upon the fact that each was adapted for working upon a soft moor!

Wednesday morning found us on board the “Fiery Cross,” hound for the goodly port of Anstruther. The weather was deliciously calm; not a breeze ruffled the surface of the water or the digestion of the passengers. “Chawles” paced the bridge in an Ulster capacious enough to envelope a small family, while the Doctor perched himself upon the forecastle, and amused himself by making hideous faces at a jaundiced infant, unseen by its unconscious parents.

Before us stretched the long line of the Fifeshire coast, while behind, wreathed in the morning mist, lay the modern Athens — Arthur’s Seat, like a crouching lion, looming above the great sea of vapour. As the sun rose in the heavens, spire after spire and tier upon tier of houses pierced the pall that hid them from our view, and ere we had reached mid channel we could see the grim old city standing out sharp and clear against the morning sky. The steamboat was so steady that I could not resist the temptation of uncording the deal box, hauling my camera on deck, and trying the effects of a rapid exposure. A rugged mass of cumuli had piled themselves up behind the city. It was here that I first learned to appreciate a “dodge” communicated to me by my friend, Mr. W. K. Burton, which I now infinitely prefer to the sky-shade. The artifice is as simple as it is effective. Take a cabinet mount, and cut in it an aperture into which the cap of the lens will just fit; varnish the whole mount black. In lifting off the cap be careful to shade the lens by keeping the card horizontal. By this means beautiful cloud effects can be obtained, even in the most trying lights, though, of course, much depends upon the delicate manipulation and correct exposure. In this instance I estimate the exposure to have been, with the lens working about f 20, between one-half and three-quarters of a second. The resulting negative was certainly one of my very best.

Midday and a flowing tide took us into the little harbour of Anstruther. Shouldering my precious apparatus I summoned the reluctant Doctor from his bilious pot, and tore “Chawles” away from a fair one upon the bridge, whom he had enveloped in that wondrous garment of his. The wrench of parting told so heavily upon both my tender-hearted friends that they subsided into the bar of the “Anstruther Arms” and proceeded to drown their cares in the flowing bowl. How long they would have stopped is a matter of conjecture had not the arrival of the coach for Grail nipped them in the bud, and cut short a Platonic flirtation between “Chawles” and a barmaid of doubtful attractions. The Doctor ascended the coach, riddling the place with conundrums, to use his own expression. They were for the most part too nauseous for repetition. Staring vacantly at the cap of our buxom landlady, he was understood to mutter that it was really too “mutch” — a joke which met with no encouragement and pined away in its early infancy.

A smart four-mile drive, varied by occasional glimpses of the German Ocean, brought us to the ancient and honourable Burgh of Grail. The coachman drew up his smoking steeds in front of the “Golf Inn,” and one by one we alighted from our perches. The quaint little hostelry looked pre-eminently homely and comfortable, while a savoury smell of beefsteaks and onions from a kitchen door left artfully ajar whetted an appetite already painfully keen. Dinner was speedily ordered, and in the interval of its preparation “Chawles” and I decided upon having “a dip,” leaving the Doctor extended upon the solitary sofa. Passing down the main street, which, to quote Mark Twain, is “not quite as straight as a rainbow nor as crooked as a corkscrew” (a merciful dispensation of Providence to a not too sober population), we headed for the beach. There, apparently less than half its real distance from the land, lay the island which was the goal of our expedition. We both gazed at its basalt cliffs, flecked with white, but with very different sentiments.

“Think what might be done by two guns in a boat,” I heard “Chawles” mutter, while my own ruling feeling was one of regret that I had not done better justice to its varied scenery by bringing another dozen of plates.

We finished our bathe and started back to the hotel, where we found our Aesculapius with an injured look on his face and a watch like a warming-pan in his hand. He was singing “Dinna forget” in an aggrieved minor key, as a delicate allusion to our want of punctuality, while he sniffed the fragrance from a brace of roast fowls which had just been served up from the kitchen. We did ample justice to really excellent cookery; and after dinner, with a glass of toddy under our belts to assist digestive powers, we mutually agreed that there were worse places for the tired wayfarer than the comfortable parlour of the “Golf Inn.”

We retired early to “roost” as it had been settled that we were to sail for the May early the following morning. Before “turning in” I took the opportunity of the darkness to transfer a dozen plates to my carriers. For an hour or two I was kept awake by a nasal duet, in which “Chawles” produced a fine chromatic effect by snoring baritone to the Doctor’s bass. Gradually, however, I dropped off into troubled slumbers broken by the repeated asseverations of a reveller in the street below that he “was na’ fou’, he was na’ fou’ ” — an assertion which he was endeavouring to prove by arguments to the solitary lamp-post of the Burgh.

At about six in the morning an inarticulate howl from a slipshod chambermaid summoned us regretfully from our beds. We dressed rapidly, and each made his own preparations for the task before him. “Chawles” extracted from its case a “double ten” by Greener, whose shining barrels and polished stock would hardly lead one to suppose how many brace of birds had gone down before it. The Doctor put in an appearance at breakfast, armed with a gigantic piece of ordnance which some confiding gunsmith had entrusted to him in a moment of weakness.

“None of your patent dodges here,” said he. “Give me the infant, four drachms of powder, and a handful of ‘double B,’ and I’m contented. No bird will cross the field of this single achromatic, double combination, instantaneous triplet without my getting the focus of it. Eh, old boy?” and he gave me a playful dig in the ribs. I afterwards found that our medical friend had been industriously perusing the advertising pages of my copy of THE BRITISH JOURNAL PHOTOGRAPHIC ALMANAC, which accounted for this sudden effervescence of technicalities.

Porridge and milk, ham and eggs, coffee and chalkless cream went down before us, and we sallied forth from the hotel well primed for the work of the day. Arriving at the harbour we were greeted by a grizzly and splay-footed mariner, old enough, apparently, to be the father of Coleridge’s hero. “Here she is, sir!” he bellowed, leading us along the quay to a little craft which was moored beside the jetty. Another sailor, more grizzly and splay-footed than the last, was busily engaged in casting off the moorings. A suspicious smell of the wine of the country and a roll in their gait told us that even at that early hour they had been partaking of something stronger than zoedone. “Shove her out, Sinbad!” said the Doctor, grounding arms upon the toe of our original friend by way of attracting his attention.

“Hech! man,” I heard that worthy grumble to his mate, while he thoughtfully rubbed his injured extremity, “yon’s an awfu’ mannie — the chiel wi’ the muckle gun!” They spread the brown sail in a trice, and as it bellied to the northerly breeze we shot out of the little harbour.

The weather was of that clear, breezy character which warms the heart of a photographer. Our light craft danced like a cork upon a heavy swell setting up channel from the North Sea, and “Chawles” began audibly to regret that final plate of porridge. The Doctor seemed impervious to the nauseating influence. He was apparently too busy gauging the mental capacity of our Palinurus.

“Never been out of Grail?” he asked.

“Ou, aye! mony’s the time. I’ve been tae Cockanzie and ance to Farfar.”

“Splendid town that!” said the Doctor, with a nod towards the little knot of houses astern, and a wink which was wasted upon the bilious “Chawles.”

“Aye, a braw toun,” quoth Sinbad, with native pride.

“You must be lively in the winter time,” said the seductive physician.

“Aye, an’ an awfu’ wicked place,” assented the veteran, with a leer of much meaning.

“Lots of dissipation, I suppose,” suggested the Doctor.

“Folks wha hae na lived here can form na idea o’t.”

“What sort of dissipation?” I asked.

“A’sorts of dissipation,” answered the vaguely-comprehensive roué; and, having invested his native village with this lurid and gloomy interest, he playfully expectorated upon the prostrate “Chawles,” and proceeded to haul down the sheet as we glided into the little rocky cove which served as a harbour to the Isle of May.

It had been arranged that we were to commence operations upon the cliffs. As there are no inhabitants upon the island, except the keepers of the lighthouse, we had only our own convenience to consult. Springing ashore we made our way up the rough pathway which leads past the lighthouse. It was here that I got my first plate, including the rocky cliff and the boat lying snugly moored among the rocks below. A second, and a very successful one, I got from a grassy knoll a few hundred yards further inland. The brightness of the morning sun compelled me to adopt the precaution for shading which I have already described. The subject was a difficult one to treat, the hard, white outlines of the lighthouse tending to produce that photographic abomination best described as “chalk and charcoal.” I separated the plate, however, from the rest, and by reducing the amount of pyro. in the developer I was enabled ultimately to obtain a harmonious picture.

Meanwhile the sportsmen had got well to work, and were making havoc among the sea birds as they rose in myriads from the caves below.

“Chawles,” now completely himself again, was scientifically disposing of something like a brace a minute, while every now and then a crash like a small cannon proclaimed that the Doctor’s muzzle-loader was “under weigh,” his victims being easily recognised by their shattered appearance. “Have a crack at them, Bob,” he said, offering me his gun, but I explained to him that my shoulder joint was valuable to me, and that I had no wish to have it dislocated. He took a horrible revenge upon me for my refusal by digging a gristly riddle out of his mind and hurling it at me. “Why is the lighthouse-keeper like Lord Cardigan?” he asked. “Because he is one of the light brigade, of course,” and he gave a guffaw which raised quite a cloud of birds, while I hurried away with my camera before he could fabricate another.

On coming down to the beach on the southern side of the island a beautiful spectacle met my eyes. Nine fine yachts of the Forth Club were rounding the point of the island, each under a cloud of canvas and lying well over, for the breeze was beginning to freshen. They looked like some great flock of sea birds as they rose and fell on the crests of the waves. The appearance of these tempted me to bring out my own patent stand and fix to my camera the rapid lens and shutter. The light was exceedingly brilliant. I reduced the aperture to about f 1/3. The distance of the nearest yacht was such that the lens being focussed for “the distance” did not require to be further adjusted. I took care that the iron spike was driven deep in the sand, so as to ensure steadiness. After once fixing the camera I did not use the focussing glass, but trusted to my eye to judge when the yacht would cross the axis of the lens. My shutter gives what an unscientific friend of mine calls a “long instantaneous exposure;” that is to say, from an eighth to a tenth of a second, which I consider short enough for almost any purpose.

Let me take this opportunity of laying great stress upon the advantage of having the aperture in the shutter several times the diameter of the lens in the direction in which the shutter moves. If this be not attended to the effect is practically, for a given length of exposure, to reduce the amount of light which reaches the plates, without the advantages which would result by bringing about the same reduction of light by the use of a smaller diaphragm. In this case every plate out of the half-dozen we exposed received a proper actinic impression.

By this time it was nearly two o’clock, and the picture of the lunch basket which we had left in the sheets of the boat began to rise lovingly before my mind. There was no difficulty in rejoining my companions, as their shots and shouts were audible all over the island. I toiled up the hill with my camera and found them in a little valley beyond. They seemed surfeited with slaughter, and hailed the idea of lunch with enthusiasm.

“Not a bad morning’s work,” said “Chawles,” triumphantly. “Forty-three cormorants, nine rock pigeons, two mallets, a curlew, and a bo’sun gull — pretty good for two guns!”

“Sinbad was to bring up the basket at half-past one, wasn’t he?” I asked.

“Yes; confound him!” growled the Doctor, “it’s close on two now. You fellows wait here and I’ll go and hurry him up.”

“Well, look sharp!” said we, so dropping his gun and a bad joke, the Doctor passed over the brow of the hill and disappeared. He was away about ten minutes when he returned without the basket, but in a state of excitement.

“Come after me, Bob!” he said, his little black eyes dancing with mischief. “Bring your camera and come quick.” With these words he led the way down a hill and through some furze bushes. “Now, quietly!” he whispered, as we crawled up to a large boulder.

“Look over that and don’t speak.”

I raised my head slowly over the rock, but it was all I could do to fulfil the latter portion of his precept. There, not fifteen yards off, sat Sinbad with our luncheon basket open before him. At that particular moment he had just emptied a third of our whisky bottle down his throat, and was bending down at the little spring while he filled it up again with water.

“Look sharp!” whispered the Doctor. “Take him before he sees you!” We raised the camera.

I rapidly and noiselessly made the necessary preparations and the roue was taken in the act.

“That’s a pretty conclusive bit of evidence,” said the Doctor, as we quietly went back as we had come. “We’ll keep it up as a little surprise for him. The son of a seacook! to go and water our grog! Now we are far enough off and out of sight. Hollo! Hollo! Sinbad!”

“I’m comin’,” said a voice, and the mariner appeared from behind the rock, staggering along under the weight of the basket.

“Come on, man!” cried the Doctor. “You are as slow as promotion in the navy.”

“I’m gey sorry to ha’ kept ye waitin’, but my banes are getting unco’auld,” explained Sinbad. “Ablins’ I’m as weel as ony ither mono my age.

“You’ve not been drinking anything out of the basket, have you?” said I sternly. The roue drew himself up. There was all the conscious pride of innocence in every feature of his face, albeit you could smell his breath at the distance of ten yards. He put his gnarled old hand upon his breast:-

“Maybe ye dinna’ ken,” he said, “that I’m an elder o’ the free kirk o’ Scotland.” There was a wealth of humour in the way in which the old sinner rolled out this clinching piece of evidence.

“By Jove!” said the Doctor, “I feel that we have acted brutally towards him. There are depths in Sinbad which we have not fathomed as yet. I declare I won’t be sure he did do it till that photograph is developed.”

We felt that the accusation should not be pressed as yet, so we endeavoured to repair the veteran’s injured feelings by giving him a help with the basket, which we conveyed to the spot where “Chawles” was waiting. Here we seated ourselves, and, looking down at the golden sand and the quiet blue expanse stretching away to the horizon, we agreed that no king on earth had a dining-hall like ours. It was a jovial meal, and when we wound up on a glass of grog, and the Doctor obliged the company with “The Midshipmite” in a charnel-house voice, even Sinbad’s old grim face relaxed, and he was understood to express his forgiveness of all injuries received at the hands of the singer.

After luncheon the sportsmen went back to their birds, and I wandered off over the island, getting two more very fine side views of the great caves, ribbed in with their basaltic columns. I then walked over to the lighthouse and made arrangements with the keeper for putting us up that night, as we did not intend to take the boat back until the afternoon of the next day. Having made this all right I worked round again towards the sportsmen. It was at this time that the idea of a photographic novelty occurred to me — why not take a cormorant at the moment of its being shot? I had a few plates to spare, so that at the worst no harm would be clone. “Chawles” entered into the idea most enthusiastically.

“This is the place for your camera,” he said, glancing along the line of cliffs with a sportsman’s eye, and pointing to a slight promontory which overlooked the sea. “You run your spike into the grass there, and I’ll stand a little to the side of you and shoot everything that passes in front of you.”

I fixed the camera in the place selected and focussed for “the distance” as before. The method of further procedure was to adjust the shutter, to place the plate in position, withdraw the slide, and follow the motion of the flying bird as accurately as possible by hand. When I heard the report of the gun I was to “fire away.” The first three, we were almost certain, were failures, as the birds were flying directly across the field of the lens. In the fourth case the bird was coming straight towards us, and we had every reason to believe that it would be a success. We could not afford to waste another plate, and we contented ourselves with this one, of which more anon.

By this time, as the light was not quite so good as it had been, I thought I should have a relaxation from my labours, so leaving my camera I borrowed the keeper’s boat and deep sea line, and put off about a hundred yards from the shore. Here, with some fresh sprats for bait and my pipe for company, I spent a most luxurious evening, the calm of which was only varied by the occasional sight of the Doctor aiming at some bird between himself and the boat. I was out an hour and a half, and had nearly as good sport as my companions, for I got a dozen gurnard, four bream, a ling, a hake, and a rock cod.

We dined luxuriously at the lighthouse upon a bream and a leg of mutton, which the worthy keeper had stored up for his Sunday dinner. Indeed, nothing could exceed the hospitality of these good people, who were evidently delighted at the unusual sight of a new face. The wife gave a long and dismal account of a stout Frenchman who had come over for some shooting, and had put a charge of shot into the leg of the eldest son. The Doctor, in his official capacity, was taken up and dressed the wound, which he pronounced to be doing well. Even the atmosphere of the sick room could not cure his irresistible propensity, for he asked me, with many chuckles, what was the difference between that Frenchman and some of my chemicals, the answer being, I believe, that “the one was a Gallic fully developed, and the other a full pyrogallic developer!”

There was great excitement in the evening over the development of the dying cormorant, and a nasty accident nearly ruined it. We were peering over each other’s shoulders breathlessly watching “the detail coming up,” when the Doctor, by some unlucky mischance, knocked over the hock bottle. The plate was only saved by my presence of mind in extinguishing the candle, judging the time requisite to complete the development, and flooding the plate with water in the dark. To my delight and, I must add, to my great surprise the plate was eventually a complete success. The bird came out as “sharp as a die,” and even several stray feathers floating around it could be distinctly made out. The loss of the hock bottle ended our developing for that tour. Luckily, before its decline and fall we had finished off the plate of Sinbad in the act of watering our whisky. The others could wait, as we had determined to be in Edinburgh again by next evening.

The weather next morning was certainly not calculated to make us prolong our stay. There was a heavy Scotch mist, and a thin drizzle of rain which soaked through an Ulster far more rapidly than an ostentatious downpour. Sport and photography were alike out of the question. It was then that the Doctor showed the stuff that was in him. He cheered us with song after song and depressed us with riddle after riddle, so that the time passed wonderfully until Sinbad looked in and announced that the tide was right for sailing. We bade adieu to our worthy friends in the lighthouse; and, having got my implements and specimens from the game bag aboard, we shoved our little craft off, and another hour saw us once more in the dissipated town of Crail. We made for our former quarters at the “Golf Inn,” and after drying ourselves and having some refreshments proceeded to take our places in the Anstruther coach. Old Sinbad had come up to see us off.

Just as the horses were starting the Doctor gravely said — “Sinbad, we are sorry even for a moment to have suspected an elder of the church of such a crime as theft. We think some apology is due to you, and you will find it inside this packet.” So saving, he solemnly handed him a little parcel containing a print of the old sailor as he appeared when industriously pouring water into the whisky bottle. The driver cracked his whip and we shot away along the country road; but the last we saw of Grail was old Sinbad, too much horrified to speak, glaring at the dumb accuser before him.

Our home journey was as pleasant as the rest of the trip, and we were back in Edinburgh by seven o’clock. That our little excursion was a social success and thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end may be seen even by this bald description. Photographically, in spite of the abominable weather of the second day, it was far from being a failure. Out of the two dozen plates we were enabled to show a dozen and a half negatives, of which no photographer need have been ashamed — a result which, I consider, working under such exceptional circumstances, would be wellnigh unattainable by the wet process. They showed every gradation from clear glass in the shadows to photographic opacity in the high lights.

I am very sure that my companions stowed away their guns with the same resolution which I formed as I stacked my camera in the old corner, namely, that a year should not elapse without renewing our acquaintance with our friends, the cormorants.

After Doyle With Cormorants

by Andre Gerard

Long before James Bond, there was Arthur Conan Doyle.  Proof exists in the form of a sketch he made of himself upon getting his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery (M.B. C.M.) certificate in August of 1881.  The sketch, which shows him, looking jauntily nautical, capering about while waving his diploma, is titled “Licensed to kill.”  Newly graduated and but recently returned from a six month Arctic, whaling voyage on the 45 foot SS Hope, on which he served as ship’s surgeon to the 56 man crew, the 22 year old Doyle could now contemplate the next stage of his life.

Initially medicine was still his goal, and, after a brief though gruelling stint as ship’s surgeon on the 1500 ton, passenger carrying freighter Mayumba, he moved to Portsmouth in June of 1882 and quickly set up his own medical practice.   Patients were few and far between, and with a lot of time on his hands he continued writing for magazines and collecting rejection slips.  As he wrote to his mother, he had ” a lot of literary chickens hatched and flying about, but none of them have come home to roost yet.”  Literary success was proving “a difficult oyster to open.”  It would be five years before the publication of a Study in Scarlet (1887), and even then recognition would be slow.  Bulldog persistence was key, and it was the need for income and his sporadic early successes which kept him prying at the oyster.

To those interested in Arthur Conan Doyle, the largely autobiographical “After Cormorants with a Camera” (1881) is important as the first piece of writing published under his name.  Though he had already published several other pieces, including “The Mystery of Sarassa Valley” (Chambers Journal, October, 1879) and “The American’s Tale” (London Society, December 1880), publishing practices of the time usually kept the writer anonymous.  Imagine, therefore, the pleasure and pride Doyle would have felt on finally seeing his name in print: A. Conan Doyle, M.B., C.M.

The importance of “After Cormorants”, however, goes beyond early encouragement of getting himself noticed.  In the story one can see much of what would later make Doyle so successful.  For one thing, the personality of Doyle the man shines through.  In the depiction of Bob and his companions, we see Doyle the bluff, muscular spiritualist; we see his love of adventure, his physical toughness, his curiosity, his forthrightness, his playfulness, and also some of his sensitivity.  While his companions revel in the slaughter of birds, the narrator of “After Cormorants” prefers to do his hunting with a camera, and even resists the offer of a gun.

Bob’s sensitivity is not surprising to readers of Doyle’s whaling diaries and letters.  Though he enthusiastically shot all kinds of animals while on the Hope, including elephant seals and polar bears, and though he would be “all clotted in blood” from killing and skinning seals and seal pups, his writing reveals increasing discomfort with the wanton slaughter of animals, be it for sport or for commercial reasons.  For instance, describing sealing in his diary he writes:

On the 3rd [April, 1880] the bloody work began, and it has been going on ever since.  The mothers are shot & the little ones have their brains knocked out with spiked clubs.  They are then skinned where they lie & the skin with blubber attached is dragged by the assassin to the ship’s side.

Recalling his whaling adventures in “The Glamour of the Arctic” (1892), Doyle wrote:

…one’s sympathies lie with the poor hunted creature.  The whale has a small eye, little larger than a bullock, but I cannot easily forget the mute expostulation which I read in one, as it dimmed over in death, within hand’s touch of me.  What could it guess, poor creature, of laws of supply and demand, or how could it imagine that when Nature placed an elastic filter inside its mouth, and when man discovered that the plates of which it was composed were the most pliable yet durable things in creation, its death-warrant was signed.

Again, years later, in “Life on a Greenland Whaler”, an article published in the January 1897 issue of Strand Magazine, Doyle still had a vivid, rather ambivalent recollection of the butchery attendant on sealing:

It is brutal work, though not more brutal than that which goes on to supply every dinner-table in the country.  And yet those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice-fields, under the peaceful silence of a blue Arctic sky, did seem a horrible intrusion.  But an inexorable demand creates an inexorable supply, and the seals, by their deaths, help to give a living to the long line of seamen, dockers, tanners, curers, triers, chandlers, leather merchants and oil-sellers, who stand between this annual butchery on the one hand, and the exquisite, with his soft leather boots, or the savant, using a delicate oil for his philosophical instruments, upon the other.

All three passages show Doyle’s discomfort with the killing of animals, yet also his pragmatic acquiescence to such killing.  We see also his prescient awareness of some of our own current environmental dilemmas.

As well as allowing deductions to be made as to Doyle the man, “After Cormorants” gives an early glimpse of Sherlock Holmes in embryo.  Admittedly Bob, the Holmes figure, lacks a violin and has two companions instead of one, yet all the same many elements of the beloved detective stories are discernable.  Some elements, such as the presence of “the Doctor,” the brief Holmes reference, the pipe smoking, and the emitting of occasional words of wisdom “through a cloud of smoke” are merely superficial, even if strongly suggestive.  More significant are the characters and the plot, and the celebration of male friendship.  On relatively short notice, three old friends, one disciplined and methodical, the others somewhat foil figures, yet cheerful and supportive, set off on a challenging expedition.  For the sake of a brisk and rugged adventure, cozy bachelor domestic comforts are abandoned; and, even if cormorants substitute for criminals, the game is truly afoot.

Before concluding, I want to point out one last, tantalizing scrap of evidence which very likely connects Sherlock Holmes to “After Cormorants”.  Although Doyle did not refer to the Isle of May in any of his Sherlock Holmes stories, in “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” (1927)—one of his very last Holmes pieces and one in which photographs play a significant part—Watson threatens that “the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse and the trained cormorant will be given to the public.  There is at least one reader who will understand.”  When he wrote those words, Doyle surely must have been thinking of his Journal of Photography story.  Tempting and possibly sensible to identify the “one reader” as one of Doyle’s companions on the long ago expedition to the Isle of May.  Tempting and certainly rewarding to read the passage as a sly, playful reference to “After Cormorants” and its early importance to his literary career.  A nod, as it were, to photographic origins.  Though, in the matter of the Cottingley Fairies, photography would eventually lead Conan Doyle seriously astray, it is my firm conviction that it played a significant role in setting him on the trail of Sherlock Holmes and his adventures.

About the Authors

Arthur Conan Doyle was a British writer. He created Sherlock Holmes.

Andre Gerard is a Canadian writer. He created Fathers: A Literary Anthology.

Details on the Text

First published under the name A. Conan Doyle, M.B., C.M. in The British Journal of Photography on the 14th and 21st October 1881. Now in the public domain.

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